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Averting the Millennium Nuclear Nightmare

"A failure of defence systems could panic nuclear controllers' John Koskinen GREG
ANSLEY Canberra bureau chief NZ Herald

Midnight, December 31, 1999. Across Russia screens monitoring the nation's air defences freeze; in neighbouring China, early warning systems go crazy. Panicked generals in both countries order their nuclear strike forces to red alert, triggering alarm among commanders in the United States, Britain and France and an urgent flurry of President-to-President appeals for calm. .. The countdown to holocaust has begun ... Chaos mounts elsewhere as navigation systems reliant on GPS satellites break down, air-traffic conrol, telecommunications, electricity, water and other essential services in vast areas of the globe are hurled into electronic confusion, and entire nations are tilted towards recession. This, President Bill Clinton's chief adviser on the Year 2000 (Y2K) Bug warned this week, may not be the stuff of a Tom Clancy novel.

John Koskinen is head of the council charged with coordinating the federal American campaign to protect critical information technology systems from collapse as computers programmed with dates using just two digits for the year click back to 1900 as the new millennium begins. - The scale of his job became apparent during a satellite discussion involving academics, Government officials and journalists in Canberra, Beijing and Hong Kong; 180 billion lines of software code world wideand millions of embedded chips requiring replacement or scrapping.

They control the operations of Governments and businesses, national and global economies, trade and financial systems, satellites, power plants, water supplies, electricity grids, aircraft and ships, nuclear arsenals and even the lifts in department stores. On December 11, the United Nations will convene a conference in hew York involving every country prepared to send a representative to develop a global contingency plan for the systems that have not been fixed in, time. There will be plenty of those, even in the US. According to Koskinen most federal agencies and the crucial systems they manage will be Y2K-compliant by the deadline of March 31 next year. America's problem instead lies in the state and local governments, and small-to-medium sized companies which have yet to move on the Y2K problem. Mr Koskinen says that even if most countries have their international services protected, the failure of domestic systems could still cause massive damage both globally and nationally. He warns that for some countries the sudden loss of electronic links to trade and financial systems could tip their economies into steep decline. His council is coordinating a series of taskforces in the US set up to push Y2K progrmmes to state and local goveniments, into crucial industry sectors, and to set up Internet information exchanges of technical information, testing proto- cols, and results. This data pool is also being made available internationally as Washing- ton attempts to avert the kind of international crises many now fear. Key among these is the risk of nuclear war. While the American nuclear arsenal is Y2K-protected, many of its smart weapons are not. The US Defence Department has 1.5 million computers and 25,000 systems running its early warning satellites, radars, communications systems, missiles, planes and ships. With the job on present estimates unlikely to be completed by 2012, entire systems are being discarded. With systems such as the Tomahawk cruise missile, vulnerable to the Y2K bug, and fears of a sharp rise in cyber-attacks on critical defence information systems, defence planners are becoming increasingly anxious. And a much greater fear is growing - the risk of accidental nuclear war. The US-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) says only four countries - the US, Britain, Canada and Australia - are preparing their military computers for the new millennium. American concerrns were increased by the revelation that Russian defence computers are clones of European and American systems and that until an alert was issued by the Kremlin in May, few organisations had even heard of the Y2K bug. "Strapped for cash" says a CSIS paper, "Russia's Atomic Energy Ministry announced on June 19 that it will wait to see what happens as the date approaches to fix any Y2K problems.' Mr Koskinen says the threat does not lie in an accidental missile launch, which is safeguarded at crucial points by the need for human intervention, but in a sudden and alarming failure of defence systems that could panic nuclear controllers. With 22,500 warheads in the Russian arsenal, and a further 450 in China's, no one needs that kind of fright. The US has now offered Russia and China a new joint early warning system, and in September Washington and Moscow agreed to sign a new ballistic missile early warning agreement to erase fears of a first strike. "We are reaching out to the former Soviet Union," said Mr Koskinen, "and trying to encourage it to understand what serious problems they face."